The Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (later the NSPCC) was at the forefront of improvements to child protection in late 19th century England. It played a key role in the campaign for legislation known as the Children’s Charter — more formally, the 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act.

The SPCC/NSPCC built on the work of campaigners for children such as Lord Shaftesbury and Charles Dickens in making child abuse and protection of children a major social concern. It brought home to people the need for parliamentary reform and specific laws to protect children. The SPCC was founded in Liverpool in 1883.

Waugh’s work in London

At that time, Poor Law authorities were reluctant to punish parents who neglected or ill-treated their children. The SPCC took legal action against parents who ill-treated their children. It also aimed to educate parents and society in general about child abuse and its prevention. Soon local branches of the SPCC were established across the country, although the society itself argued that a national organisation was needed. Rev. Benjamin Waugh, who worked in London in the slums of Greenwich, was a founder of the London SPCC and, in 1889, when the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was created, he became its first director.

Waugh wrote extensively on the lives of children, drawing on his experiences in magistrates courts and as a school inspector. One of his themes in the campaign for Children’s Charter was that for 60 years, animals in England had had more legal protection than children. In 1889, in his book, ‘Some Conditions on Child Life in England’, he wrote:

‘It will be impossible to even mention the hosts of those special defilements and injuries done to girl children. They are vast in number and incredible in kind, and include large numbers of own fathers as the fearful criminals… ‘There was the poor little boy of seven, the hated encumbrance of a father and stepmother, bound and sometimes gagged and thrust in an orange box … unfed all day long in a locked-up room… ‘Sending two starved, almost naked, little girls for half a hundredweight of coals in rain and sleet twice; immersing of a dying boy in a cold tub for an hour ‘to get his dying done’… ‘Strapping a deaf and dumb boy because it was so extremely difficult to make him understand…’

The society worked with local police, and local aid committees were directed from its headquarters. Prosecutions followed only if parents did not respond to warnings about their behaviour towards their children. Waugh resigned in 1905, as his health was failing, and died in 1908.